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PM News Brief: New state COVID response, Washington County drug bust & worst drought in 1,200 years

Stock image of a medical worker administering a COVID-19 test through the window of a vehicle
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Utah health officials announced Friday the state will begin scaling back its COVID-19 response, including closing several testing sites. That story and more in this evening's news brief.

Friday, Feb. 18, 2022

State

Utah shifts its COVID response

Health officials announced Friday the state will begin scaling back its COVID-19 response. It comes as cases have declined over the last month. They’ll close several testing sites and stop reporting daily case counts, opting instead to look at overall pandemic trends. Gov. Spencer Cox said the state has come a long way from the start of the pandemic with tools like the vaccine. He said the focus will now be on “treating COVID as we do other seasonal respiratory viruses.” Still, officials are encouraging the elderly and people who are immunocompromised to get tested if they feel sick. New measures are expected to be in place by March 31. — Ivana Martinez

New estimates put Utah in better financial position

The Utah Legislature has about $800 million more to spend for the next fiscal year than previous estimates. That’s according to new tax revenue projections released Friday. But the new totals are still only about half as much money as lawmakers have cumulatively requested for programs. A strong economy and federal stimulus funding has contributed to the increase in tax revenue, but lawmakers warn that high inflation and less stimulus money going forward could lead to a weaker economy and less tax money in the next year. The head of the Executive Appropriations committee said they should save budget surpluses for next year. The budget is expected to be finalized by the end of next week. — Sonja Hutson

Great Salt Lake bill gets the OK from House committee

A $40 million bill aimed at helping save the Great Salt Lake unanimously passed its first legislative committee Friday. HB 410 creates a water trust — either a nonprofit organization or a partnership between conservation organizations — that is charged with protecting the lake and its larger watershed. The trust would use the bill’s $40 million to increase or keep steady the water flowing into the lake and sustain its wetlands, among other things. The bill also requires the trust to go after additional private funding to pay for restoration projects. The Great Salt Lake is at its lowest levels since record-keeping began in 1847, and the drying lake could have disastrous effects on air quality, migratory birds and other wildlife. Read the full story. — Sonja Hutson

Southern Utah

Drug bust in Washington County

Seventeen people have been charged in a Washington County drug conspiracy. Law enforcement officers from federal, state and county agencies conducted the investigation and seized more than three kilograms of methamphetamine and thousands of fentanyl pills. Angel Rubio-Quintana and others allegedly brought drugs from Mexico, distributed them in the St. George area and sent the money back to Mexico. Charges include conspiracy to distribute the drugs and conspiracy to launder money. In a press release, acting United States Attorney for the District of Utah, Andrea Martinez, said her office is committed to prosecuting drug traffickers in the Southern part of the state. — Elaine Clark

Region/Nation

Tree rings show bleak picture of drought

A new study of historical climate records finds the West's current drought is the driest stretch in 1,200 years. Scientists measured the rings of trees, which act as a chronicle of how wet the ground was over the years. Park Williams with University of California, Los Angeles is the study's lead author. He said about 40% of the current drought's severity is directly linked to human caused warming, and that it will take more than one extra wet year to turn things around. — Alex Hager, KUNC

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